Maybe some women aren’t meant to be mothers.
It’s a suggestion that, for some, still prompts a sweet smirk and a knowing eye-roll: Just wait until the ultrasound, until the first kick, until the doctor puts the baby in her arms. The magic bond will solidify. Being a mother, she’ll realize, has been her calling all along.
Except what if it’s not? In her new book, “Patsy,” our pick for this month’s Lily Lit Club, Nicole Dennis-Benn introduces readers to a woman left entirely unfulfilled by motherhood. Patsy, born and raised in Jamaica, is fixated on the possibility of a different life — across the ocean, in America, with the woman she’s loved since she was a teenager. When she finally gets her visa, she drops her 6-year-old daughter, Tru, off with a father Tru barely knows, dodging her daughter’s questions about when she’ll be back.
Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn would often hear about parents who left for the United States, Canada or the U.K. The absent fathers, she said, were talked about openly, but she only knew of absent mothers from whispers. I spoke to Dennis-Benn about how she stopped herself from judging Patsy — and what she’s learned from telling her story. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: How did you think up the character, Patsy?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: She came to me while I was in commute, going to and from the College of Staten Island, where I was teaching in the summer of 2012. I thought of her as one of the Caribbean women who was on the subway with me, going to work on the Upper West Side as a nanny. I would just imagine the lives of these people: what they left behind, what they brought with them, who are they now in this new country. It was also very ironic because all over the subway there were these signs with pictures of beautiful beaches: “Come to Jamaica,” “Come to Bermuda.”
CK: Why did that strike you?
NDB: Well, it was wintertime in New York, and we were hustling in the early morning to work to pay the bills. There is a scene in the book where Patsy meets a woman at a bus stop who says, “I don’t understand why you Jamaicans would leave, when you have this tropical paradise.” People see it as this beautiful country with sea and sun and sand, and Bob Marley, and ask why we leave.
CK: Do you get that question a lot?
NDB: Yes. When I came to America, people would be like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so cold here. I don’t understand why you came.” But it’s more complex than the cold. It’s more complex than the weather. Yes, you’re leaving the sun and the sand and the beach, but while I was living [in Jamaica] I never had the luxury of partaking in that all of the time.
On the other side of that paradise, there are all these socioeconomic disparities between the rich and the poor. Jamaicans, we don’t really have our beaches anymore. If you’re not staying at a resort, you can’t really go to the beach. Most of the beaches are now charging us to swim. If I don’t have ownership of that country, there is nothing else to do but leave.
CK: Reading the book, I felt like going home wasn’t even on the table as an option for Patsy. Why not?
NDB: To go back means you are a failure. There’s a big hoopla about leaving to go to America, to go to Canada, to go to London. The expectation is that you’re going to be better off. So for people to come see you at the airport, coming off of the American Airlines plane ... they’d be like: “What happened? Why’d you come back so soon?”
A lot of immigrants sell their family and friends a story of success, of opulence: We finally got the home with the white picket fence, we finally got the BMW, we finally got all these things. And then you come to America and you realize it’s a lie. You can’t get all that if you don’t have papers, if you don’t have Social Security or the right education. “Patsy” is about unpacking these lies we tell ourselves.
CK: What do you like most about Patsy, the character?
NDB: I love her defiance. She wants to survive. Yes, she has a lot of things going against her as a working-class, Jamaican, dark-skinned woman. But she has a lot of fight in her. There is one scene where her employer, Regina, asks her: Is it realistic for a protagonist [of the book Regina is writing] to go through all of this hardship and survive? And Patsy says, “No, it’s not.” She is talking about herself, because someone like Patsy probably would have broken by now. But she hasn’t.
CK: There is a lot of despair in this book. Something terrible happens, and then the situation gets worse, and even worse. How did you think about balancing that kind of all-consuming despair with glimmers of hope or joy?
NDB: I love the rapper J. Cole. And there is something he says: “There’s beauty in the struggle.” Even though Patsy is not where she wants to be in America, I gave her Fionna, her roommate, who encourages her to keep going. And I did the same thing for Tru: I gave her a community of boys she likes to play with and also a good father figure. I didn’t want it to be all fear and despair. I wanted people to see that there are small bursts of joy and community as well. Yes, you fall down, but Patsy reinvents herself each time she cracks.
CK: It’s still a major taboo for a woman to leave her child. The stigma doesn’t seem to exist for men in the same way. Why is that?
NDB: When we’re socialized in a society as girls, the first thing we learn is motherhood. We are given dolls, not bikes. And that says a lot about the expectations: We think a maternal instinct should be automatic, we should be good at it. With fathers, it’s different. If they go away for work or anything at all, people shrug their shoulders and say, “Okay, that’s just men.” No matter where you are in society, people judge you if you are a woman without children or if you mention that you don’t want children. You’re seen as a pariah.
A lot of women in the Caribbean have written to me to say that “Patsy” reflects their own story: They’ve had mothers who have left; they were mothers who left. Back in Jamaica, that was always whispered as gossip: So-and-so’s mother left and started a new family in America. Fathers left all the time, but mothers leaving was never in the mainstream.
CK: Did you find yourself judging Patsy for her decisions?
NDB: In the beginning I did. I had to reexamine why I was judging her. But when I put that aside, and embraced Patsy fully, I respected her more for admitting it to herself that she did not have that maternal instinct and, eventually, for admitting it to others.
I don’t think that judgment will lift until we, as parents and aunties and uncles and godparents, can give our sons and daughters permission to step outside of their gendered box and just be people.
CK: You write about places you’re very familiar with. Now you live in Brooklyn, where Patsy lands when she arrives in the United States. Was it hard to distance yourself enough to see them and interpret them as Patsy or Tru, instead of as you, Nicole?
NDB: Patsy and I both spend a lot of time in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I see [the neighborhood] one way because I own my privilege as an immigrant who was able to go to college and exist in this country with documentation. Walking down any street there, I’m walking freely. I’m looking for places to have brunch. I’m going to a friend’s brownstone for a gathering. I’m watching the West Indian Day Parade.
Patsy, on the other hand, is hustling to her next job because she can’t afford to be late. She can’t afford to miss a day of work. She might spend her day off in an emergency room because she doesn’t have a primary care doctor. She doesn’t have time for brunch. She doesn’t have a bank account. Everything she has is cash.
Can you imagine existing when there is no paper trail of who you are as a person? You’re just walking through the world as a Jane Doe.